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Looking back at Nolan Ryan’s 59 strikeouts over his first 5 starts for the 1978 Angels

Jacob deGrom tied his record this week

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California Angles Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

Jacob deGrom on Wednesday suffered a hard-luck loss, dropping his record to 2-2 despite a minuscule 0.51 ERA. But he also reached 59 strikeouts on the season, matching the MLB record for most in the first five starts of a season. He shares that record with Nolan Ryan, who knew something about little run support with the 1978 Angels.

This was Ryan’s seventh year with the Angels, and the club finished with a losing record in each of his first six seasons. But the Halos were on the upswing in 1978, and would win 87 games, a stepping stone year to finally winning the division the next year. Even if it didn’t seem that way right from the start of 1978.

Ryan struck out 11 batters in his first four innings of his first start, on April 9 against the A’s, but was removed after six scoreless innings, with 13 strikeouts, thanks to having already thrown 123 pitches. Ryan left the game up 2-0, but Oakland rallied off the bullpen for a 4-2 win.

Five days later against the Twins, Ryan still pitched scoreless baseball, but this time for 10 innings, striking out 12. The Angels won this won, but not until the 11th inning, so Ryan got another no-decision.

Ryan had a 0.00 ERA and 25 strikeouts in two starts, but had no wins.

“Our job as pitchers is to keep the score down,” Ryan told the Associated Press after the game against Minnesota. “The day will come when I give up six or seven runs and win.”

On April 18 in Seattle, Ryan was hit around a little bit, allowing six runs (five earned) in seven innings in a loss to the Mariners. He struck out eight. Six days later, Ryan was rested enough to throw 149 pitches in nine innings and strike out 15 batters, but he also allowed four runs in another game that went into extras.

That was a no-decision, which left Ryan at 0-1 with a 2.53 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 32 innings in his first four starts. The Associated Press game story was accompanied by the headline, “Nolan Ryan wonders what a guy has to do.”

Ryan finally broke through with a shutout win over the Rangers on April 29, striking out 11, giving him a 1.98 ERA and 59 strikeouts through his first five starts, the latter a record that stood along for 43 years before deGrom equaled him. But for Ryan, he finally got an elusive victory, telling Steve Dilbeck of the San Bernardino Sun with a smile after the game, “I was starting to wonder what it felt like to win.”

Nolan Ryan’s April 1978

Date Opp. Dec IP H R ER BB K
Date Opp. Dec IP H R ER BB K
Sat, Apr 8 Oak 6 2 0 0 4 13
Thu, Apr 13 Min 10 4 0 0 4 12
Tue, Apr 18 at Sea L 7 4 6 5 6 8
Mon, Apr 24 Sea 9 7 4 4 5 15
Sat, Apr 29 Tor W 9 2 0 0 6 11
Totals 1-1, 1.98 41 19 10 9 25 59

Despite playing on losing teams, Ryan averaged 19 wins from 1972-77 with the Angels, and even though the Halos broke through with an 87-win campaign in 1978, Ryan finished the year with a 10-13 record. Perhaps this prepared Ryan for what would happen nine years later with Houston, when he led the National League with a 2.76 ERA yet sported an 8-16 record.